The Trojans finally saw a late field goal go their way.
Two in fact.
USC senior place kicker Joe Houston kicked the game-winning 29-yard field goal a few minutes before Arizona State’s place kicker Thomas Weber hooked left a 42-yard attempt, ensuring a 34-33 USC win and ending the Trojans’ penchant for letting close games slip through their grasp.
Coming into Saturday’s game against the Sun Devils, the Trojans had lost three of their last four, including two heart-breaking losses on late field goals against Washington and Stanford and a deflating beat-down by Oregon last week.
“I really kind of felt like… ‘finally,’” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “We just hadn’t had many breaks go our way throughout the year. … It was really good for our players just to see them have something go their way.”
Houston was especially thankful for the redemption. The kicker missed two first-half kicks of 27 and 35 yards, but came through as USC trailed 31-33 with just more than three minutes remaining on the clock.
“I’m human. I was anxious,” Houston said. “But I believe in myself, I believe in my teammates.”
Houston, who is six for 12 on field goal attempts this year, said the kick was for his teammates.
“I believe in Joe, I’ve believed in him this whole year,” sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley said.
A lot of pieces had to fall in place in the buildup to Houston’s game-winning kick. A tame first half turned into a wacky second, defined by huge plays on special teams and defensive touchdowns.
Three point-after-touchdown plays tipped the balance in the Trojans’ favor. After senior linebacker Malcolm Smith returned an interception 74 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter, the Trojans converted a two-point conversion on a pass from senior quarterback Mitch Mustain to senior wide receiver David Ausberry.
Next, the Sun Devils lined up to go for two after an interception return for a touchdown by cornerback Omar Bolden, hoping to tie the Trojans at 29. But USC’s pass rush sacked Sun Devil quarterback Steven Threet.
After Arizona State scored the go-ahead touchdown on a nine-yard pass from Threet to wide receiver Jamal Miles, USC junior offensive tackle Tyron Smith blocked the point-after try and redshirt freshman cornerback Torin Harris caught the ball on a hop and sprinted for the opposite end zone.
Instead of going up 34-29, the Sun Devils’ lead was cut to 33-31 and the momentum was back on the Trojans’ sideline.
These were just a few of the key special teams plays filling up a game that had many, which included two blocked punts (one partially) by sophomore safety T.J. McDonald and a 100-yard kickoff return by Arizona State’s LeQuan Lewis.
Special teams turned out to be crucial for a Trojan team that has put more focus on that aspect of the game under special teams coach John Baxter.
“It’s a third of the game,” Houston said. “In games like this, you really see that special teams execution is critical.”
On the game’s first drive, the Sun Devils caught the Trojans off guard when Threet tossed a lateral to Miles. Miles launched the ball to a wide-open wide receiver T.J. Simpson for a 54-yard gain.
Threet found wide receiver Gerell Robinson on a 10-yard touchdown pass in the end zone to cap the 72-yard, three minute drive.
The Trojans’ defense stiffened up after that, however, holding Arizona State scoreless the rest of the first half. The Trojans held Threet, who led the Pac-10 with 268 passing yards per game prior to Saturday, to just 228 yards and intercepted him twice. Threet threw three touchdowns.
Barkley, along with the rest of the USC offense, had an up-and-down game, finishing 26-of-37 for 215 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions.
Barkley missed a streaking freshman wide receiver Robert Woods for what looked to be a sure touchdown on his first pass of the game. Kiffin said that might have thrown his quarterback off.
“I’m sure it took him a while to get over the first play,” Kiffin said. “It took me a while to get over it.”
Tyler, who left the game in the fourth quarter with an ankle sprain, led the Trojans on the ground with 119 yards on 12 carries.
After a late night at the Coliseum, the Trojans were just happy to find themselves on the winning side of a late-game field goal.
“We know what it feels like to be on the other side of the ball now,” Wright said.
Added Kiffin: “All in all, after what we’ve gone through in the last four games prior to this — you know the two last-second losses and the Oregon game — we’re just happy to get a win right now.”